Hart, St. Charles Share Historic Finish

June 2, 2018

By Jeff Bleiler
Special for Second Half

COMSTOCK PARK – Put the Hart and St. Charles teams together, and you’d have had a runaway winner in the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Track & Field Finals on Saturday at Comstock Park.

Hart’s dominance in the distance events and St. Charles’ performances in the sprints would have made it difficult for any other team to challenge for the title.

As it was, each team’s strength countered the other to near perfection as Hart and St. Charles tied for the Division 3 championship with 46 points, earning both their first MHSAA Finals title in this sport.

They finished 10 points ahead of third-place Onsted, which closed the gap by placing fifth in the final event, the 1,600-meter relay. Neither Hart nor St. Charles fielded a team in that event, and Onsted entered it 14 points behind with only 10 available to the winner – so the championship had been decided before that last race even got started.

Both Hart and St. Charles’ coaches were pleased with the shared championship, the first time that’s happened in Division 3 since Laingsburg and Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central split the crown in 2003.

“We had an idea we’d have a chance if we used (junior) Adelyn (Ackley) in three events but didn’t know where she’d end up,” said Hart coach Mindy Whitney, who actually inserted Ackley into a fourth event, which proved critical.

Ackley – who led the cross country team to the LPD3 title in the fall as well – won the 3,200 in 10 minutes, 45.54 seconds; finished runner-up in the 1,600 to Hanover-Horton’s Judy Rector; and placed sixth in the 800, all that after anchoring the winning 3,200 relay in the day’s first event. Alayna Ackley, her older sister, led off and sophomore Brenna Aerts and freshman MacKenzie Stitt filled the second and third slots, respectively, as the relay finished in 9:32.67.

Alayna Ackley also provided valuable points by placing third in the 3,200 despite coming back from a stress fracture injury just last month. The 3,200 was a boon of points for Hart, which picked up 20 in that event alone as the third Ackley sister, freshman Savannah, was fifth.

Whitney said her brother was keeping tabs on the team scoring but after the completion of the 3,200, she thought they came up a point short.

“I was very happy; it was a good day,” she said.

The same could be said for St. Charles, which did its damage in the sprints. Najiyah Holden did the most by winning the 200 in 25.61 seconds, finishing third in the 100 in 12.73 seconds and running the first leg of the winning 400 and 800 relays. The other members of the relays were freshman Hope Kushion and sophomores Erica Garcia and Celine Whiren.

Coach Andre Williams was especially pleased with the 800 relay team’s time of 1:44.97, which broke by three seconds the school record.

“I’m satisfied with (sharing the title),” he said. “After the 400 relay, I knew we had a shot. I told Najiyah she had a shot at winning the 200, and she did. We just don’t have any distance runners.”

Sprinter Jenna Odykirk of Farwell put to rest previous struggles at the Finals by winning the 100, edging reigning champion Shiyon Taylor of Parchment by two hundredths of a second, and finishing runner-up in the 200.

Odykirk, who finished a disappointing 16th in the long jump, took solace with her finishes in the sprints after she missed the finals in 2017 in the 200 by one spot and was a distant 16th in the 100.

“I didn’t do too well in the long jump, but I had decent times in everything else,” said Odykirk, whose time of 12.63 seconds in the 100 was a personal best.

Odykirk, a junior, credited the improvement to off season indoor work at Saginaw Valley State University with coach Kyle Payne and outdoor work with Farwell coach Matt Horodyski.

“Next year, my goal is to be state champ in the 200 and the 100, do better in the long jump and run in the 400,” said Odykirk, who qualified this year for the 400 after finishing sixth in the event at last year’s Finals. She opted not to run it Saturday.

In the field events, the shot put provided some late fireworks as Beaverton senior Alicia Aldrich and Clinton’s Amanda Schaare put on quite a show.

In her final attempt with Aldrich on deck, and with the crowd slow clapping as she readied, Schaare heaved it 43 feet, 9¼ inches to move into first. The crowd gave Aldrich a similar slow clap, and she responded with a launch of 44 feet, 7½ inches to take the championship.

“I was like shaking a lot,” Aldrich said. “It feels really great. I wasn’t expecting that at all. The competition really makes you want to throw it farther. I got nervous when I saw Amanda throw it, but then I heard the atmosphere and it pumped me right up.”

Aldrich, who just started competing in shot put last year, will continue in the sport at SVSU.

The runner-up finish for Schaare was not a disappointment as she already had repeated as the discus champion. Schaare won with a toss of 128 feet, beating Sheridan Dinsmore of Caro by six inches.

“(Repeating) was awesome; I really wanted to do that for myself,” Schaare said. “Words just can’t describe it. It’s a feeling that not everyone gets to experience. I just have the greatest support system.”

Schaare’s runner-up put was a personal record, beating the 41-9 she posted early in the season.

“I didn’t finish first in the shot put, but I’m OK with that because with the discus, that would have been icing on the cake,” said Schaare, who will compete in track for the University of Michigan.

Marlette senior Emily Schaub swept the hurdles, winning the 100 hurdles in 15.01 seconds and taking the 300 in 46.96 seconds. She was third in the 100 hurdles a year ago and did not qualify for the 300 final after placing 15th in her 2017 preliminary.

Jackson Lumen Christi freshman Renae Kutcha won the 800 in 58.75 seconds, and Hanover-Horton’s Rector won the 1,600 in 4:52.59. Kutcha also led off the opening leg of Lumen Christi’s winning 1,600 relay team, joining junior Allison Rand, junior Marilyn Schonhard and senior Audrey Warriner with a finish in 4:01.9.

Boyne City senior Anna Harmeling won the pole vault in 11-6, Millington senior Hannah Hall won the high jump at 5-3 and Onsted senior Harlie Sweet won the long jump with a leap of 17-3½.

Click for full results.

VIDEO: Holden On For A Bulldogs Co-Championship

PHOTOS: (Top) A pair of St. Charles runners execute a handoff during a relay Saturday. (Middle) Hart's Adelyn Ackley, left, stays a step ahead during one of her relays. (Photos by Annette Tipton. Click for more from RunMichigan.com.)

East Kentwood Friends Continuing to Excel as NCAA Champ, Pro Soccer Keeper

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

August 8, 2022

Maia Perez and Gabriela Leon saw it coming.

In fact, the two 2017 East Kentwood all-staters each predicted remarkable post-high school success for each other long before graduation.

Perez was a four-year letterwinner as a soccer goalkeeper who led the Falcons to the Division 1 Semifinals as a sophomore and now plays professionally in Los Angeles. Leon, an all-state pole vaulter in high school, recently became University of Louisville's first NCAA champion in that event.

The two say the success doesn't come as a surprise to either, that part of that success can be explained because they continually pushed each other athletically at East Kentwood.

"Obviously there are a lot of good athletes at East Kentwood, and she was one of those amazing athletes," Perez said of Leon. "When she accomplished something, I wanted to do something big, too. I was all-state in soccer, she was all-state in track, and it was nice to have someone push you, even on days when you didn't feel like being pushed."

Leon credits Perez for helping her grasp the difference between toiling as an ordinary athlete and rising to an elite status as early as the ninth grade.

"When you see high-caliber athletes in the state finals, I think you see the struggles that others don't see," Leon said. "I saw what she was doing, and I learned from that. I learned, and I think she did too, that you have to work hard to be good, to achieve your goals. There is definitely mutual respect between us."

East Kentwood track & fieldThe two met as freshmen and quickly became friends. They originally had soccer in common as both played junior varsity as freshmen before Perez was promoted to varsity later that spring. The teammates began hanging out together off the field, be it at the beach or while taking the school's advanced physical education class together. By the time they were sophomores, however, it had become apparent that Perez's future – despite being a good basketball player – would remain in soccer, while Leon – who had also lettered in volleyball and cross country – narrowed her focus to track.

Both excelled after leaving East Kentwood. Leon had earned her first top-eight MHSAA Finals places as a sophomore, and as a senior placed fourth in pole vault, third in long jump and ran on the fourth-place 400 relay and third-place 1,600 relay as East Kentwood finished third in Lower Peninsula Division 1. Her high school personal records were 13 feet in pole vault and 18-11 in long jump (with a wind-aided 19-7). She broke Louisville's indoor and outdoor records in the pole vault as a sophomore and never looked back. She won the 2022 NCAA outdoor championship in June with a jump of 15-feet, one inch (4.6 meters) while becoming just the fourth collegian ever to amass three clearances over 4.6 meters.

Perez was a three-time Ottawa-Kent Conference Red soccer pick in high school who helped the Falcons in 2015 to their best postseason finish, when they lost to 1-0 in a Semifinal to eventual Division 1 champ Saline. She went on to play at University of Hartford after attracting interest from other programs including Western Michigan, Coastal Carolina and Pittsburgh. She wound up playing every minute of all 37 of her starts as a sophomore and junior while missing just 45 minutes over 19 games as a freshman. COVID-19 wiped out the program's season when Perez was a senior. Still, she is eighth on the school's all-time saves list with 206 while ranking 10th in shutouts with 12.

Following college, Perez was signed by the Los Angeles-based Angel City FC of the National Women’s Soccer League. While she wasn't drafted by any NWSL club, Perez impressed coaches enough during a tryout to land a spot on the team's "Discovery List" as the youngest of three goalkeepers.

"Things have been going real well for me there," Perez said. "I feel like I've improved a ton."

While Perez credits Leon with pushing her as an athlete, she said the two didn't necessarily dwell on what they accomplished in high school. They did, however, compare notes on the similarities it took for both to succeed, both physically and mentally.

"We didn't necessarily talk about (honors) a lot," Perez said. "We both knew what each other accomplished, and I don't think we need to talk about it. But I just knew one day she would be really good in track."

East Kentwood soccerLeon said the trait which stuck out about Perez in high school was her competitive drive. She hated to lose, Leon said.

"She was always a very impressive athlete," Leon noted. "She always had (success) in her because she was a real hard worker. Going into high school you could see her work ethic. We had a mutual friendship, and I saw what a work ethic and being humble could do for you."

As for herself, Leon, like many athletes, explored playing many sports. But she always came back to track.

"I always wanted to be the best athlete I could be," she said. "I was never just satisfied with just doing something. I always had this deep desire to perform to the best of my ability."

Perez remembers the first sport which interested her was skateboarding. In fact, the first time Perez met then-East Kentwood coach John Conlon, she told him she was only marginally interested in soccer. Conlon, who led East Kentwood’s girls and boys programs to a combined 654 wins and the boys varsity to five Division 1 championships, quickly made a convert of Perez.

"It's funny how things work out," Perez said. "I was looking for something that I could really be a part of, and now it's my job and I'm so happy I can say I'm getting paid for something I really like."

2021-22 Made in Michigan

Aug. 3: 3-Time Finals Champ Cherishes Memories, Considering Golf Future - Read
Aug. 1: 
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July 28: 
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July 25: 
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July 21: 
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July 14:
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July 12: Coaching Couple Passing On Knowledge, Providing Opportunities for Frankfort Wrestlers - Read
June 30: Hrynewich's Star Continuing to Rise with Olympic, Pro Sports Arrivals - Read

PHOTOS (Top) Clockwise from left, Gabriela Leon competes for the East Kentwood and University of Louisville track & field teams, and Maia Perez plays soccer for East Kentwood and trains for the NWSL's Angel City FC. (Middle) Leon holds up her NCAA championship trophy in June. (Below) Perez is one of three keepers for Angel City FC. [Photos courtesy of East Kentwood's athletic department (2017 soccer), Run Michigan (2017 track & field), the Louisville athletic department (2022 track & field) and Will Navarro/Angel City FC (2022 soccer).]